The Oakland County village of Holly’s first Pride was a sea of smiling faces, rainbows and Pride Flags. For participants, the event, which took place on June 29, was much more meaningful than these outward displays of pride.
Despite all the progress the LGBTQ+ community has witnessed over the past several years, it’s still not easy to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer. It’s not only LGBTQ+ pride that connected Holly’s Pride attendees to one another but shared experiences of pain, sadness and fear.
Parents still disown their gay children. Landlords still turn away same-sex couples, making it harder to find housing. People still live in fear because they can be fired for who they love or how much they stray from stereotypical gender roles.
Kids — and adults — face name-calling, harassment and violence. Fear or shame takes a psychological toll. Despite legalized marriage equality and increased visibility of LGBTQ+ people in the public eye, there’s still a long way to go for those who simply want to feel accepted as human beings.
So while Holly Pride organizers celebrated diversity, they also honored this struggle and shared their stories.
“Let me talk to you about bears,” said Chrissandra Padilla.
Padilla is the director of Early Childhood Development at Holly Area Schools and one of the women offering “free mom hugs” at the event. Supportive adults wearing “Free Hugs” signs is a trend at Pride events meant to share love and support with those who can’t come out to their own parents or who feel alienated from them.
Padilla was one of several speakers at the event. She explained that when you see a bear, you want to run or get help.
“Hopefully, someone is there to get you out of that situation,” she said. “But imagine the bear is always there.”
In her story, the “bear” is the fear of being found out and the weight of being rejected. It’s the feeling of being less than human when families and societies tell LGBTQ+ people they are worth less because of who they love.
Padilla touched on “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs), a psychological term that identifies situations in youth that cause long-term harm. ACEs correlate with health problems, stress, increased risk of substance abuse, mental health issues and suicide.
“I grew up with a bear. All my childhood involved a bear,” she said. “There are people like us who want to get rid of the bear. We want to quiet the bear. That’s why we give free mom hugs. That’s why we want to be where you are and support you where you are. We want to provide you a safe space where there is no bear.”
As an educator and a parent, Padilla is known in the community as someone kids can count on. “The great part of being part of this group of moms is I get to provide support to people outside my household, people… who maybe don’t have supportive homes.”
While Pride events provide a fun, safe place for people to be themselves and find other open-minded people, allyship outside these events is also critical.
Nick Popadich is a teacher at Grand Blanc Schools who was the target of online bullying when someone in the community posted his picture in an online forum questioning if he was setting a good example as a local teacher. The Facebook post showed him wearing blue lipstick, flamboyant sunglasses and a nose ring. To his surprise, hundreds of people posted supportive comments.
He told the young people in the audience that he knows how it feels to be the target of online bullying, which is, unfortunately, a common experience for young people worldwide.
“What I was happy to see happen was just so many come forward to support me,” Popadich said. “It would have been enough for like 5, 10 people to come. I think about myself. If I saw what happened, once I saw 20 comments, I might be like, ‘Well, the guy gets it. People are OK with it. It’s cool.’ But, like, 200 comments. So, I just think about those people and what they’re doing for their kids. The message they’re sending to their kids, not to be bystanders. To make sure you’re on the side of justice, of what’s right. Even if a lot of people have already done it. You stand, too — for them.”
Holly Pride was organized by Holly ACTS, which stands for “Action, Community Transformation, Solidarity.” The group has been working to engage progressives in the community by recruiting candidates for local office, doing community service projects like supporting a food pantry at the Holly Township Library, collecting feminine products for local shelters and schools and raising money for a women’s memorial at Waterworks Park.
Ryan Delaney is a Holly Village councilperson who ran with encouragement from the group. He spoke at the rally wearing a “proud ally” shirt as an official, a father, a teacher and someone with a religious background. “As a person of faith, I believe God saw all he created, and it was very good. That every lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender person is very good.”
The event had been scheduled to take place at Crapo Park in downtown Holly, but the looming threat of severe storms led to a potential cancellation. Cari Cucksey, owner of the Holly Vault and the event venue 111 College, offered up space at the last minute. Jerome Raska and Robbin Yelverton, who own the flower shop Blumz Holly, also stepped in to help make the space look lovely for the event, with rainbow decorations and flowers. They also donated rainbow-dyed roses for the attendees.
“We were very happy they needed an indoor space, and we were honored to host it,” Cucksey said. “We would like to make it an annual event! The LGBTQ community is important, and we certainly are allies! We have a trans child, so spreading awareness and acceptance is important to us. Everyone deserves a safe space and place to gather.”
The event welcomed nearly 100 people into the space, with some traveling from other cities just to be there. One young person on stage said that her family was supportive of her being a lesbian and that everyone in her school knows. She’s only had a few negative encounters but said, “It’s weird to see all these people who feel the same way as me — people who recognize that it’s no different than any other type of love.”
Organizers say this will likely be an annual event. Learn more about Holly ACTS on Facebook.